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Republican Tom Graves (left) and Democrat Derek Kilmer lead the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which demonstrated unanimous support for all of its proposal to the full House of Representatives.

Panel charged with fixing Congress is given another year to try

The House has rewarded its special "fix Congress committee" for its wholly bipartisan and relatively productive first year by extending its life for another year, giving the panel time to tackle some of the more contentious problems on its watch list.

With polarization, dysfunction and gridlock now Capitol Hill's three defining characteristics, the panel was created in January to set the stage for different behaviors to germinate — by proposing how the House could become a more efficient, transparent and up-to-date place for members to pass bills and conduct oversight, and for staffers to help them.

The idea is that it's essential for Congress to get back some of the capacity, stature and muscle ceded in recent decades to the president and the courts — and thereby recalibrate the balance of powers at the heart of a thriving federal republic.

The extension for what was once envisioned as a one-year panel, formally the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, was quietly tucked into a totally unrelated procedural measure governing debate on legislation to revamp the Export-Import Bank.

The vote Thursday afternoon was 228-198, an almost totally party-line tally that belies the way the panel's Republicans and Democrats have unified behind all 29 recommendations they have made so far.

One group of ideas has centered on making the House's work more accessible to the public by, for example, creating easier access to congressional information and unifying the software lawmakers use for legislating. Another focus has been human resources improvements for staffers, including creation of an office for diversity and inclusion, more professional development opportunities and a modernized payroll system.

Even those seemingly anodyne ideas, however, cannot be implemented until the majority Democratic leadership says so — and commits to making the changes happen through internal mechanisms or, in some cases, legislation.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not committed to formalizing anything the panel has proposed, and she's been openly resistant to some of the more ambitious ideas being floated. (She also kept committee leaders in the dark about whether she would support an extension until hours before she arranged for it to happen, and she's not signaled whether the panel's next annual budget will be increased above the current $500,000.)

Some of the proposals so far are entirely about the House; others would have to get buy-in from a Senate that's historically been even more resistant to modernization than the House.

And the internal Capitol Hill turf battles and electoral politics anxieties will only intensify now that the special committee has until the end of 2020 to tackle much more controversial ideas. Among the things various lawmakers, "good government" groups and think tanks have asked them to propose are:

  • Tightening the rules while modernizing the technologies for member's official communications with their constituents.
  • Altering the congressional calendar so members are in Washington for longer stretches, with lengthened work days, more time for legislative work and fewer openings on their schedules for fundraising.
  • Revamping the budgeting system to minimize the opportunities for government shutdowns while maximizing the opportunity for members to effect policy and conduct oversight. (The most ambitious idea here, having the spending bills and program authorization measures written in alternating years, looks to already be a dead letter.)
  • Reviving in an altered form of the practice of allowing members to secure funding for projects in their districts sought by local communities, believing such "earmarks" would build rank-and-file support for the annual appropriations bills and represent a reprioritizing of (but not an increase in) the budget.
  • Boosting the overall budget for staff payroll, which is about 10 percent less than when the decade began, in order to improve retention and bolster the number of people with policy expertise.

To emerge from the committee any recommendations must win support from two-thirds of its members. There are six Democrats and six Republcians, an unusual break from the House's customary rules under which the majority party dominates.

But to date the panel's leaders, Democratic Chairman Derek Kilmer of Washington and GOP Vice Chairman Tom Graves of Georgia, have been able to go one step beyond and win unanimous backing for all of the more low-hanging-fruit proposals.

Still, Pelosi made no mention of the GOP in her statement Thursday, praising its extension as a furtherance only of Democratic objectives.

"These efforts to modernize Congress are an excellent start, but more work is needed to ensure a responsive, modern and accountable legislature," a coalition of democracy reform advocacy groups wrote to House leaders last week in urging the extension. Among them were the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Congressional Management Foundation, Demand Progress, the Partnership for Public Service and Issue One (The Fulcrum's parent, while promising journalistic independence).

"There are few people who would say that Congress is working, but this committee is proving that members can find common ground even in the most polarizing of political climates," said Mark Strand, who runs the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit focused on making the Hill work better

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The House on Friday passed legislation to restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill would require advance approval of voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. Here President Lyndon Johnson shares one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Passage of historic voting rights law takes a partisan turn

In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.

The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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Big Picture

TV stations fight FCC over political ad disclosure

Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.

With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.

This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.

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1952 Eisenhower Answers America

On TV, political ads are regulated – but online, anything goes

Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.

With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.

Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.

Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.

I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.

Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.

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